Randy Mosher boldly notes in his ode to all things beer, Tasting Beer, “The wine world has done a very good job of convincing people that it is the only acceptable beverage for fine dining.… It is time for beer to take its place at the head of the table.” And chances are if you’re reading this, you already agree, knowing the joys that a well-chosen food and beer pairing can bring.
When it comes to food-friendly beers, there is almost no better option than that of a well-aged vintage beer. Loaded with a huge palette of flavors, these beers have the tools to deal with a multitude of foods. But to really appreciate how well these cellared beauties can work, it’s best to get down to the foundations of food and beer pairings.
When matching up a dish with a beer (vintage or otherwise), you first and foremost have to match intensity with intensity. Powerful foods go with powerful beers, and delicate beers with delicate foods. The strong alcohol notes of a Belgian quad would overpower the nuances of white fish but go well with a juicy steak (arguably better than a zinfandel would).
You then have to determine what the dominant flavors are in the beer and use them in one of two ways: to either complement or contrast a dish. This process is no different from any other food and drink pairing. A complementary pairing showcases the dominant flavors (e.g., a chocolate milkshake and brownie), while a contrasting pairing aims to balance those flavors (think of the salty-sweet interplay of a burger and a Coke).
There are plenty of classic food combos already in the beer world. The go-to complementary route is using the hoppy bite from an IPA to heighten the impact of spicy foods (something wine struggles mightily to do). A prime example of a contrasting pairing is employing the acrid roast of a stout to cut the creaminess of ice cream or other dairy-centric desserts.
With this in mind, you can see how the more prominent flavors a beer has, the more versatile and food friendly it becomes. That complexity opens up a world of pairing possibilities, and there’s not much that can rival the breadth of opportunities achieved by pairing gently aged, cellar-worthy beers. Not only will aging let some of the more subtle flavors surface, affording a larger toolkit with which to work, but time yields those delicious, yet stubborn “vintage” flavors such as dried fruits, amaretto, and candied pineapple.
So the next time you’re thinking of pulling a bottle from the cellar (or splurging on that vintage offering at the restaurant) consider these vintage beer and food pairings.
Barrel-Aged Imperial Stout
Cellaring melts the coffee-like roastedness of an imperial stout into chocolate, while the barrel aging adds layers of vanilla, coconut, and caramel. The safe bet is to go with a chocolate dessert for an over-the-top splurge, but consider contrasting the beer’s dessert-y goodness with a simple dish of berries whose acidic tang presents a stellar balance.
Hops are what separates the ever-popular American barleywine from that of its English brethren, and even aged, a good American barleywine should retain some hoppiness to go along with the newly emerged sherry and toffee notes. Pairing that hoppy bitterness and sweet caramel with a fiery Thai dish is the Master’s degree version of the classic IPA-spicy food match-up. A five-year-old bottle of Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot and a steaming bowl of panang curry should be on every beer geek’s bucket list.
Beer doesn’t get much more complex than an aged English barleywine. The initially harsh booziness mellows into a cornucopia of treacle, dried fruit, vanilla, and port. While pairing with a dried-fruit dessert such as panforte is a surefire bet, consider borrowing a page from tawny port drinkers and serve it with Parmigiano Reggiano or a similar hard, dry, salty cheese to cut through the rich sweet side of the beer.
For the record, gueuze—a blend of one-, two-, and three-year-old lambic—is already a “vintage” beer when it’s bottled. Most versions don’t necessarily require aging, but if you do age it, you will find that the gueuze dries even further, the acidity softens, and it often begins to take on more vinous, champagne-like qualities. There is a classic gueuze-food pairing in Belgium, in which it’s served with a simple creamy sheep’s milk cheese. The creaminess balances the strong acidity, and the cheese’s simple nature doesn’t get in the way of the gueuze’s plumage. To take it to the next level, serve the cheese with salmon lox, whose earthy saltiness will complement the lambic’s funky notes.
Also known as the “Burgundy of Belgium,” Flanders Red shares many similarities, including food-friendliness, with red wine. Like gueuze, Flanders Reds are aged before their release and don’t automatically require further cellaring. They are bright and fruity when first on the market, and additional aging mellows the fruit and pulls out subtle tannins and roasted notes that were lingering in the background. Look either to pair with a fatty meat—such as roasted duck or short ribs—to balance the acidity or a simple greens and sweet pepper vinaigrette salad whose complementary flavors raise the Flanders’s tangy profile to new heights.
Initially boozy to the point of often being harsh, a Belgian quad’s higher alcohols are transformed by time into toffee and molasses-esqe sweetness, which show off the Belgian yeast’s fruity and spicy nature. Perfect your Julia Child impression while pairing a Belgian quad with a thick savory sweet stew such as Boeuf Bourguignon to showcase those dried-fruit notes. Or instead, choose the finger-foods path with pancetta-wrapped dates to deliver the experience appetizer-style.
If there was ever a food-friendly beer, it’s the smoky, malty Rauchbier. Although Rauchbiers are powerfully smoky when first released, cellaring integrates the overall profile, giving the roasted notes and emerging oxidative flavors (sherry, dried fruits, amaretto, etc.) a chance to share the stage. While pairing it with smoked meat is the hit-you-over-the-head obvious complementary choice, also consider s’mores made with Belgian dark chocolate to really make the beer’s chocolate and smoke notes sing. And whatever you do, don’t forget the stogie.
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